What’s in a Name? Why Product Naming is No Simple Feat in China

I can’t count the number of times we’ve had clients come to us to do a naming study. More often than not, they think it’s going to be something quick, dirty, and cheap. Clients will often ask us to just translate their brand name into Mandarin and test it with a few consumers. Wham, bam, done!


Naming in China goes beyond just using Google Translate. Never mind all the legal aspects of naming, like making sure something isn’t already trademarked or isn’t trademarkable, language is more than a series of letters or characters hobbled together. There are wider cultural and linguistic implications happening here. That’s why we’re big proponents of transcreation, the process by which you not only translate but also add in those wider imperatives. That way you come up with something that really resonates rather than embarrasses. Believe me…the latter happens way too often.

Take one of China’s most popular, well-regarded brands: Coca-Cola. Coke entered the Chinese market way back in 1927. When they came over, they simply translated the four syllables in their name. This resulted in the amazing brand name 蝌蝌啃蜡, meaning tadpoles eating wax candles! Needless to say, consumers weren’t too thrilled with the name and sales for Coke weren’t the initial hit they thought they’d be. Eventually, Coke employed one of China’s premier linguists at the time to devise the name they still use today, 可口可乐, meaning delicious and cheerful.

But, when companies get things right they can really hit it out of the park. Some of my favourite examples include:

  • Subway Sandwiches, 赛百味, meaning their flavours are better than 100 other flavours.
  • Lay’s Chips, 乐事, meaning cheerful things.
  • Hershey’s Chocolate, 好时, meaning happy times.

When we transcreate, though, we can do so much more than just put together characters that have a fun meaning. We can also denote sensorial or implied meaning to names which can help with brand positioning and consumer perception. Check out these examples.

  • Evian Spring Water’s name, 依云, denotes premiumness and purity.
  • Dove Chocolate, 德芙, references flowers and the feminine.
  • Godiva, 歌帝梵, gives off superior, almost imperial qualities.

At TSI, we’ve been fortunate enough to work with a number of international brands in helping them transcreate great names for China.

  • U.K.-based Italian restaurant, Zizzi, worked with TSI to come up with the right naming convention for their China launch. We eventually landed on 滋意, which speaks to indulgent flavours like those found in delicious Italian fare.
  • Australia’s favourite treat, Tim Tams, also came to TSI for the relaunch of their product in China. One of our most in-depth naming studies, we came up with 缇美恬, a name implying relaxed, quiet, reflective experiences consumers wanted from the dessert.

It’s easy to see why simply naming a product in China isn’t actually simple at all. While we wouldn’t recommend you go out and try this on your own, there are a few things to keep in mind when transcreating a brand name for the Chinese market.

  • The Holy Grail is to combine the pronunciation of your brand name, transliterated, with some greater meaning behind the name. That way consumers can easily recognise your brand in marketing collateral and in other international channels.
  • What is your character combination delivering for consumers? Is the name easy to pronounce or a tongue twister? Does it have a positive meaning or something more sinister? Can people read it or does it use one of the more obscure Chinese characters?
  • It’s also important to think through the ideology of each character. Chinese is a complex system of character combinations. While individual characters might mean one thing on their own, they may very well take up an entirely different meaning when in a group.

At the end of the day, your brand name is what consumers will ultimately resonate with. In our hyper-connected society, it’s also the gateway to positive adoption or negative buzz. Getting it right, rather than having it done cheaply, is a critical part of a successful China marketing mix.

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